Panel: Female scientists are not actually dumber

A study on women in the sciences concludes that they are held back by institutional structures, not because of aptitude.

Published September 19, 2006 3:43PM (EDT)

I did not want to miss a mention of this story from Monday's New York Times about a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences to determine why female scientists are grossly outnumbered by men at the highest levels of academia. The panel concluded that the problem lies not with the female brain but with the "outmoded institutional structures" of academia. Shocker.

The panel's report, "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering," dealt in part with the question raised last year by former Harvard president Larry Summers, about whether the paucity of upper-echelon female academic scientists is related to "innate" intellectual differences between the sexes. The panel dismissed this idea, noting that if there are cognitive differences, they are small and irrelevant. In fact, according to the Times, the study concluded that the "gender gap in math performance has all but disappeared as more and more girls enroll in demanding classes. Even among very high achievers, the gap is narrowing."

But why then, when women earn 30 percent of social and behavioral science doctorates, and 20 percent of life science Ph.D.s, do they become full professors at less than half those rates? And why are minority women "virtually absent" from high-level science departments? According to the report, these are not related to commonly held assumptions about women -- that they think competition is yucky or are pulled to spend more time with their families than men are -- but because of "arbitrary and subjective" evaluation processes and because anyone "lacking the work and family support traditionally provided by a 'wife' is at a serious disadvantage." What an interesting formulation that is. That working women are at a disadvantage not because they may be wives but because they don't have wives.

The report recommended several changes to improve and equalize professional conditions for women, including that universities alter their hiring and evaluation processes, offer more support to working parents and change tenure timetables.

The panel also concluded that we need to even the playing field for women in the sciences, since the United States cannot afford "such underuse of precious human capital" and brainpower. "Unless a deeper talent pool is tapped, it will be difficult for our country to maintain our competitiveness in science and engineering," said Donna Shalala, former secretary of health and human services and current president of the University of Miami, who chaired the panel.

Panelist Ruth Simmons, president of Brown, said, "The data don't lie. There are lots of arguments one could have mounted 30 years ago, but 30 years later we have incontrovertible data that women do have the ability to do science and engineering at a very high level." The question, she said, is "Why aren't they electing these fields when the national need and the opportunities in the fields are so great?"

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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